Posted on 6th May 2021

Sustainability in the wilderness – Becoming Tom Thomson

80 North Entertainment's upcoming documentary feature, Becoming Tom Thomson, follows an actor preparing to play the renowned painter in the Canadian Wilderness. Steve Belford, a producer on the project, describes how sustainability was key during production

Becoming Tom Thomson is about an actor getting into character for an upcoming film in which he’ll play the renowned Canadian wilderness painter who died mysteriously in Algonquin Park in 1917.

From learning to paint, canoe and fish to camping and fending off bears the host takes the audience on a journey back in time, scouting some of the locations that inspired the Canadian icon while also gaining first hand experience about what might have taken the young artist’s life.

The 28 day long shoot was shot in 10 blocks, over 14 months, at 3 locations in Northern Ontario that were 200 – 250 kilometres apart. The team live in Southern Ontario. It was clear from the beginning travel was going to be the production’s biggest carbon contributor.

Steve Belford, Producer at 80 North Entertainment, described how the team tackled sustainability challenges on the shoot:

Basecamp, accommodations and locations

Our story began with working out where we would set up basecamp. We decided to use a family cottage on a small lake, which doubled up as our accommodation, and would also be used as a set in the documentary.

Trips from the cottage to the other two locations were kept to a minimum, and those locations just so happened to be around provincial campsites so a tent and sleeping bags became our accommodation

These type of accommodations and set up definitely wouldn’t work for most productions, but were a natural fit for our film. Camping was actually mandatory for the last 2 shooting blocks we had planned. Staying in a hotel would have totally defeated the purpose of the journey and not to mention, added to the carbon footprint. Additionally, electricity wasn’t available at these locations, so we used solar powered lights and rechargeable batteries for our LED’s.

Narrative

Our stay at the cottage drove the crew to become as ‘method’ as our actor and we began to shift our efforts to get into the time period of 1917. We took away running water at the cottage (using water from the lake instead), and chopped wood for a fireplace as our main source of heat. The fire also served to heat water up for showers (which was literally a milk jug you poured over yourself). In addition, the fire also helped dry out our clothes/wardrobe which we had to wash by hand in a pail.

As it got warmer outside we went further down this rabbit hole and moved to a cabin on the property which had no plumbing or wood stove inside. We shut off the electricity, used a battery pack to charge the camera, used candles as a light source and used the outside fire pit to heat things up. Food was adjusted so it didn’t need to be refrigerated and we used the lake to get clean. Phones were even shut off which made it very interesting to guess what time it was – but that was all part of the process, and once again, reduced our carbon footprint.

Some of our planned locations had to be scrapped as we were filming in the middle of COVID restrictions. As the lockdown ended, we had to rethink and adapt by choosing others.

We may not have been able to go to all the places we planned and experience the backcountry in exactly the way we wanted because of COVID, but we ended up with locations that were closer to our basecamp than planned. This helped reduce our footprint and also allowed us the unique opportunity to connect to the character and story in a way that we hadn’t thought possible before.

Carbon created and offsetting

We did simple things to reduce our carbon footprint such as consuming less electricity, using reusable water containers, eating more raw food and even switching to a local coffee company but travel was by far our biggest contributor. We drove a small gasoline car over 7,500 km even after cancelling the last trip. Given the nature of the project, travel was bound to be our biggest issue. This is one area we would like to improve on next time.

To offset we donated to TreeCanada who have a very simple carbon calculator to figure out what your footprint is and how many trees need to be planted. It actually matched our albert calculation exactly.

We are looking to be a carbon positive production so, in addition, we are also donating our time to a green project with our environmental advisor (and one of our films sponsors) Sean James Eco Consulting and Design.

An idea we are thinking about is planting Short Grass Prairie or Long Grass Prairie in a farm field. These grasses sequester more carbon per acre than a forest – even more than a rain forest.

Planning for our next production

The documentary wasn’t just an acting and location scouting exercise,  it was also a test to see what worked and didn’t work when it came to sustainability. We knew the kind of locations and conditions that would appear in our eventual feature film about Tom Thomson and so this was really an exploration to find those spots and see just what would be required to make our film work there.

One example is the distance we had to travel on the water. Having a much larger cast and crew paddle a canoe or row a boat loaded with gear to a set way down the lake would take far too long and cost too much money (not to mention people would be tired). So this is one area where we are most likely going to be creating carbon – using a motorboat to shuttle people from base to locations.

Another example is the log cabin we needed for 4 to 5 important scenes. A summer camp we were able to film at, actually had a perfect one on the property. It’s accessible by car, easy walking distance to the set, close enough to plug into mains power and has accommodation for cast and crew. Clearly, this would help us lower our footprint.

Sustainability isn’t about creating no carbon. It’s about finding the places you can reduce it and offsetting for the places you can’t.

— Steve Belford, Producer, Becoming Tom Thomson

Takeaways

If there is one thing to take away from our story it’s that Covid has been a wake up call. It forced us to change our narrative and reduce our travel. Not only that, it pushed us to uncover a much more personal, transformative story while also highlighting the changes that need to be made going forward. One place that can definitely happen is in the screenplay.

As scripts are the blueprint of what your film will be, writing with sustainability in mind can be the first step in the process. Looking at how you are going to shoot something is another way to help reduce your footprint. Bringing lights with us into the wilderness wasn’t really an option. It would have given the documentary a less organic feel. Films like The Revenant and Nomadland used very minimal lighting, choosing to go with a more natural, raw look. And those films have done pretty well if you ask me. I think that says something.

A lot of people think it costs more to be green. In our experience it did not. After we undertook green initiatives we were able to save 6% on our small budget.  On a 10 million dollar film that would be a $600,000 savings! That money could go toward offsetting or marketing or both.

One way to help us move toward a more sustainable landscape is for unions and funding bodies to adopt protocols to ensure every production is calculating carbon and creating an offsetting program. This isn’t just about ensuring our kids have a better future (although that’s a huge motivating factor – especially for us). It’s also about business. Younger generations, customers and even investors are all shifting to products and services that meet this new vision of sustainability. As demand grows broadcasters and studios will change as well. By not making the necessary adjustments now and implementing these new practices, in the coming years you may find that selling your non sustainable film is like trying to sell a VHS in a streaming world. People just aren’t going to buy it and your hard work won’t be seen.

Our industry has the amazing ability to set trends in the world. I believe it is our responsibility and duty to lead by example – not only for our industry but also for the many others who are contributing to the problem instead of being part of the solution. We can be that change. We must be that change.

Find out more about 80 North Entertainment over at their website